To Return
Vilnis Vējš, Art Critic
Exhibition Wonderful Journey
12.–30.09.2009. VEF, Block 7
The “Exhibition of the Year” – it was not hard to find a candidate to the title in the Studija questionnaire. Wonderful Journey was the first to enter my head and it stayed there. Why? Several visitors to the exhibition whom I know – from relatives to professionals who have “seen it all” – confirmed that they had found there an intrinsic link with their personal experience, and it was Wonderful Journey that appeared to be this year’s most unexpected, but most stimulating, “eye-to-eye” encounter with art. Even philosopher Artis Svece cast aside his customary restraint, and in the October issue of the Rīgas Laiks magazine allowed to express himself with a warmth atypical of his trade. I, for my part, will try to be unusually objective in what I say, although in reality I am one of those touched by the exhibition.

Is the exhibition extraordinary in any way? No. It has two main features, neither of which is particularly innovative: one – it had “ensconced itself ” into derelict industrial facilities, a former factory; this has already become an exhibition classic of its kind in Latvian contemporary art. The other – a pronounced introversion, the presence of revelations grounded in personal experience and of an explicit narrative, which for a long time now cannot be regarded as a novelty, but rather a passage of maturity for a certain tradition.
Even with a superficial glance back into the last five years of the 20th century and the first five of the 21st, it is not difficult to notice that the greater number of notable exhibitions – especially those having the character of a creative quest, rather than a summary format – have taken place in premises recaptured not for art, but for quite different purposes.

Following rather radical activities by Kapars Vanags and Ilze Strazdiņa, curators of a 1995 project Open, for whom the choice of undomesticated space was vital in principle, later followers chose solutions similar in form, both for purely practical reasons (the collapse of the Latvija exhibition hall in 1997 and the quiet decline of the non-commercial art gallery M6), and also with the aim of creating a more poetic, nuanced ambience.

Some examples to illustrate this, chosen at random, but not incidental: Tauki (‘Fat’, 1999) saw in the first generation of “contemporary professionals” in Latvian art – ironically, in the as yet unrenovated museum premises opposite the Riga Castle. Lietas (‘Things’, 2000) was the first serious appearance of “everyday storytelling”, displayed on an old barge under the guidance of curator Māra Traumane; Animal Farm and Tējas sēne (‘Tea mushroom’, 2001) already displayed a certain self-irony about art as a performance banished from the temple (arranged by Open, Kaspars Vanags, Katrīna Neiburga); Sociālais ekshibicionisms (‘Social exhibitionism’, 2002) by Ieva Kalniņa putatively at the Railway History Museum, but in fact in a real antimuseum, flirting with the problems of art under the notices of “private” and “alternative”.

There were also other more or less successful attempts at expanding the physical space of art. Their metaphorical diversity is characterised, for instance, by two projects in 2004: Kas ir svarīgi? (‘What is it that matters?’) by the Centre of Contemporary Art, exhibited in the premises which Riga City Council had just vacated and where the Foreign Ministry had not yet moved in, and Pornogrāfija (‘Pornography’) presented by VV galerija in an abandoned flat in Čaka iela which was supposed to house, but never did, the Association for Transparency Delna.

Why this lengthy account? In order to understand what happened next. (Yes, we know what happened, only more often as not we refuse to view political and economic realities in relation to the process of art and its dynamics, and even less so – to accept the inescapable consequences. That nothing will be like it was before.) Paths of delusion, glistening bubbles, the illusion of prosperity.
Jānis Blanks. I was little, didn't see it. Charcoal on paper. 120x200cm. 2009
Rasa Šmite. Journey in the Meadow. Installation. Variable dimensions. 2009
Katrīna Sauškina. So Come on Home. Installation. 2009
Spaces for noncommercial exhibitions were simply not available any longer, because they weren’t available to anyone without enormous loans or astronomical rent. And they seemed to be needed less and less, because the colossal crystal palaces of the future glimmered right there, in front of the tip of one’s nose. Quite deliberately I am not including the “creative environments” recently marketed “from above” as “alter-native space”, as these were born in a marriage of convenience between business and artists’ good faith, a union that has already been dissolved at Andrejsala, whilst the Spīķeri quarter still awaits the birth of true, unencumbered, creative initiatives.

In the context of cultural policy, Wonderful Journey was like a point of return, a point from which to start again. The 7th block of the former VEF factory is a logical continuation of the spontaneous concentration of artists’ studios in the neighbourhood , and maybe that is why the exhibition was convincing with its free, natural breath of fresh air.

Of course, political jiggery pokery is again lurking somewhere in the background, namely, a wish by the Riga City Council to show off, and to prove Riga’s readiness to be the culture capital for the whole of Europe in five years or so. It doesn’t matter that the push lasts but for one dizzying night called – funnily enough – the white night, in the wake of which, during the next sober grey days, nothing at all will be offered (until the next fireworks).

But be that as it may with these manipulations, as the sheer physical efforts by the people who created the exhibition (funds allocated for the setting up of the large scale display were miserable and so everything was accomplished by their own hands), and their creative intensity leads us away from suspiciousness (see the newspaper Kultūras Forums of 18 September for the article ‘Survival or Conformism’ by Inga Šteimane). It is this intensity that urges us to focus on the essential, the true and the authentic.
At the exhibition it was evident that Latvia does have a legion of artists (even considering that, at the same time, a good many of them were displaying their works elsewhere in the city). Alongside the “young and promising” (hardly a short supply of those), there was a considerable number of authors who are, so to speak, at the prime of their life. Not all of them, however, are often seen on the exhibition circuit, directly due to the circumstances which were the reason for their convincing return: a whole generation had spent too many hours, or even years, at advertising agency computers and other enforcement instruments required for the building of a showy society.

For this reason, the efforts manifested in most of the works seem unfeigned: to be as close as possible to the object of one’s reflection, to the impulses which have excited interest, without sweeping generalities, intentional effects, clichéd symbols and allegories – closer to one’s own self. Unexpectedly, this approach played along with the half-crumbled, half-restored atmosphere and produced an effect like that in paintings by Kristīne Keire: as if gazing at a vague source of light through dust-covered, semitransparent glass. The frayed textures of the rooms have been utilised by many, but it didn’t leave an impression that that had come from thoughtless improvisation – rather as a supplement to the artefacts, as metaphors of the existential situation.

The surroundings did, however, add to the expressiveness of works by both Agate Muze and Anna Heinrihsone: one of them sought to read the past in the faces of women of her family and the other, with painful cheerfulness, foretold her own old age. Kate Krolle, through rough texture, produced a diorama similar to a hallucination, but Elīna Poikāne, for her part, in the unsuitable space exhibited a hyperrealistic figure of a genuine extraterrestrial. The dark nooks – “appendices” to the main exhibition space – also had a special role to play, and the horror stories by Atis Jākobsons therein did not seem in the least amusing; neither did the apparition of Mary before the policemen, as conjured up by Lita Liepa.

The theme of the exhibition – a journey – leads, of course, to an endless chain reaction of interpretation clichés: inner journey, journey back to childhood, journey into the imagination, journey as a reason for coming back – you name it. That, however, was hardly the intention of Ieva Kalniņa, curator of the exhibition. Rather Wonderful Journey was only a frame, formally setting limits, but actually giving the artists freedom, their rights to tell a story, to devise a plot.

There were works in the exhibition which used this freedom to its fullest. Notably Anda Lāce, for instance, when telling about her hike to Kolkas Rags, or Kaspars Lielgalvis, who about a much more exotic journey in the text accompanying his work emphasised that the physical change of location had not brought about the expected revelation, to be more precise – expectations had been too high. Flēra Fedjukova, in her turn, got exactly what she wished for: a husband wedded to her in accordance with Buddhist rites. None of these examples, however, provokes an ironic smile – quite on the contrary, the process of immortalizing “travel impressions” (painting, manufacturing of items), which can be likened to a ritual due to its time and concentration consuming nature, liberates the topic from trivial chattiness and creates conviction that the artist is personally motivated to relive the experiences.

The fact that in Latvian cultural archetypes, unlike for instance, those of Americans, a journey sooner or later takes one back home, has been reflected upon by many, be it cinematography scholar Inga Pērkone, anthropologist Dagmāra Beitnere, or, last but not least, Nils Sakss. One may smirk about journeys in reminiscence – who, then, has not had a childhood. Still, such conclusions all by themselves do not tell anything of significance: what kind of home is it that one returns to, what sort of childhood did each of us have, and how do those who experienced it live today? It is unlikely that anyone could assert that the exhibition halls of Riga, on a daily basis, present an extravagant miscellany of versions about this.

In Katrīna Sauškina’s magnificent installation, home resembles an old ornamental carpet, washed over by a fake, but very credible ocean wave, revived by glints of sunlight cast by a banal chandelier. Just as believable is a deer drawn by Jānis Blanks , an animal lost on somebody’s private estate together with other forest animals – because this, unmistakably, is the artist’s own deer. It is, in a way, similar to the characters created by Harijs Brants: clearly, their home is in his head. As for Mārtiņš Blanks, his childhood experience – a trip all alone to Madona – can hardly be understood by those who don’t even know what Madona is. It will, however, will speak volumes to those who share similar experiences. Likewise Inga Meldere’s efforts to identify the corners of Latvia she has visited by a single, totally ordinary “file” stored in her memory. Or the “commonplace” landscapes by Andris Eglītis, that have preserved an impression of a date and time.

It seems the focus of the exhibition this time was on the codes of expression and perception through which art travels from the artist to the viewer, and which are recognized as one’s own. Market pressure and europolitical involvement often treats the universality of the language of art as the usage of unified themes, signs and “safe” techniques, but by and large keep silent about the issue which is not the only one, but definitely the most significant for a vital practice of art: what goes on between art and the viewer “one-to-one”, being present in person, not through the mediation of newspaper articles heralding success.

I have heard critical comments about Wonderful Journey as well: on the local scale, without irony, apolitical. Unbidden and uninvited, I spring to its defence: maybe arbitrarily, but it is in these qualities that I see a topical ideological message. A movement towards “downshifting” (as opposed to “development” – the idol of past times), which can also be easily associated with the idiomatic expression “to come down to earth”.

Dear old Wikipedia names, as primary features of this behavioural model or trend, withdrawal from the “rat race” and a rejection of “materialistic obsession”. In the context of the past five years, for the explanation of these phenomena, it seems, Wikipedia is unnecessary. The future will show what trends the global post-crisis reality will bring into the field of aesthetics, but its impact seems to be already present in the communicative function of art, as a desire for contact, maximally unmediated, between the artist and his audience.

This “coming back down to earth” I would gladly see as more frequent reciprocal visits between the artist and those living next door – let’s say, a doctor or a student, instead of running into each other once every two years during a biennial. A global benefit would be the lower consumption of aircraft fuel, but local gains – more of those references to art as a personal experience, such as I heard after Wonderful Journey, and that encouraged me to nominate it “Exhibition of the Year”.

/Translator into English: Sarmīte Lietuviete/

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